Well, here we are. We have officially reached the top ten. As stated before, I’ve slowed down a bit to talk about each film with a little more detail. Honestly, the top ten was easy to compile. As soon as I came up with the idea for this list, they flew into my head without a second thought. These are the greatest of the greats, the ones that I will go back to again and again, and the ones that either scare or entertain me the most. Take a gander and see what they are! And remember, if you disagree, tell me! Would love to hear your own top ten!
“The most fun you’ll ever have being scared!” That’s what the tagline for George Romero’s Creepshow declared and I can’t say I disagree with it. A love letter to the EC comics Stephen King and Romero grow up with, Creepshow is an example of the two horror masters lightening up and having a blast. This is easily King’s finest original screenplay, not that he has many. The script absolutely nails the tone and themes present in such comic staples as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Namely, it features loads of dark humor and vile characters getting their appropriately nasty comeuppance. It’s a far more successful adaption of the comics than even the best episodes of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.
One of the many reasons for this is because Romero actually took the time to make the movie look and feel like a comic book. And he did this in an era when comic adaptations were a very new thing. He utilizes dissolves that look like pages turning and frames a lot of scenes like they’re panels, complete with wild colors shooting out of them. Animation is used effectively to transition in and out of each story and the film’s score is bombastic and elegant, the kind of pounding music that increases the tension while retaining a playful note.
Each story is a delight. They all pay homage to the comics while adding in their own unique spin. “Father’s Day”, a standard corpse revenge story, is elevated by the over-the-top performances and utterly detestable characters. It’s a hoot watching them all fall victim to Nathan Grantham as his maggot infested body declares, “I want my cake”. That line sums up the movie as a whole: it’s funny and creepy at the same time. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill” features a hilarious performance by Mr. King himself as the world’s most dimwitted farmer. If I had to declare one of the stories as weak, it’d be this one but it’s still funny and inspired. If you don’t laugh when King looks at a meteorite and says, “I wonder how much they’ll pay for it up the college”, I don’t think I want to know you.
“Something to Tide You Over” is the most inherently scary one of the bunch as it features one of the worst possible ways to die. Also, if you only know Leslie Nielsen from the Naked Gun films, it’s a blast to see him ooze menace here. “They’re Creeping Up On You” makes excellent use of roaches and features a hilariously evil performance by E.G. Marshall. I could watch this guy whine about the maintenance in his building and yell at his employees for hours. The gross out factor is the highest here, which is only appropriate considering the subject matter.
The centerpiece and highlight of the film is “The Crate”. Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau are perfectly cast as the mild mannered professor and his shrewish wife. Her final comeuppance is the film’s most satisfying moment and it’s delicious, irreverent fun to watch the gears in Holbrook’s mind turn as he figures out a purpose for the monster under the stairs. Does Creepshow have anything to say about the human condition? Does it offer anything in the way of social commentary? NOPE and it doesn’t need to. It’s simply a grandly staged, hilarious, and scary celebration of horror. Really, the tagline says it all.
9. The Babadook
Is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook too recent a film to warrant an inclusion in the top ten? HELL NO. I knew it was a classic the second after I saw it. A note about that: I watched The Babadook all alone in my house with all of the lights off. A little less than halfway through it, a psychological battle waged on in my head. “This is pretty damn scary, maybe I should turn the lights on”, I thought. Then a more reasonable voice in my head said, “That’s ridiculous. I’m a grown ass man who watches horror movies all the time! I don’t need to turn the fucking lights on!” Ten seconds later, something terrifying happened and I raced to the light switch with the speed of an Olympic athlete. A movie hadn’t scared me like that in well over a decade.
Kent, in an absolutely stunning feature debut, draws inspiration from German expressionism to create her nightmare world. The muted color scheme and antiquated setting makes this feel like a black and white film in color. It’s a stark, unnerving reality that she brings to life, and one that fills us with dread from the very first frame. Stop motion animation is utilized for the title creature, which makes his movements all the more disturbing because they look so spectacularly unreal. Kent also never gives us a full shot of the monster. She’s wise enough to know that simply suggesting what hides behind it’s cloak is far more terrifying than actually seeing it.
At the center of the film are two phenomenal performances by Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as the haunted mother and son. Each role is complex and layered. Both of them do repellant things but we are never less than firmly with them every step of the way. It’s not often that a film digs into the resentment present between a mother and child but The Babadook does and this adds a distinct level of honestly to their relationship. It also makes their reconciliation at the end all the more rewarding.
As frightening as the film is, it’s even more successful as an exploration of grief and depression. The title beast is as much a physical monster as he is a representation of crippling emotions. Once you let those emotions in, you can never get rid of them and trying to do so will only cause you more agony. All you can do is learn to live with them and embrace them as a part of who you are, even if that means locking them up in the basement and feeding them every once in awhile. This is a powerful and hopeful message that The Babadook conveys through a visceral tale of unrelenting horror. It’s an example of the genre at its absolute finest and more than worthy of its place on this list. Full review here.
8. Nosferatu the Vampyre
It was a close call between F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Herzog’s remake but I’m going with Herzog because his film is as visually compelling as the original but much more moving. This is a haunted, mournful film that views creatures of the night as figures of profound sorrow. Their existence is so long, lonely and every waking moment is defined by a crippling bloodlust that can never be satiated. Klaus Kinski, known for his wild, over the top performances, is remarkably restrained here. He creates a Count so weary and tired we can’t help but feel pity for him.
The film’s pace is deliberately slow, which would lead an idiotic viewer to conclude that the movie is boring. There’s a big difference between a filmmaker taking his time to tell a story and one who bides time only to get to the more exciting parts. Herzog has always taken the former approach but even Nosferatu is more deliberately paced than most of his work. The languid pace adds to the atmosphere and themes of the film. This is a dreary world that most of the characters would like to be rid of. They all go through the motions of their life without real purpose, fulfilling their duties only because there’s nothing else for them to do. In a way, they have more in common with the Count then they even realize.
The manner in which Herzog films nature has always been one of his strong suits but he outdoes even himself here. The land surrounding the castle is as dread-filled as its interior. Nothing in this world is safe or welcoming. And there are no heroes. Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan Harker is a decent man but one who cannot accept any of the warning signs around him. When he finally does, he doesn’t step into a traditional hero role but nearly loses his mind. Isabelle Adjani is portrayed as a figure of ethereal beauty but one as removed from waking life as the Count is. Still, she cannot accept his offer of eternal life. The burden is too much to bear.
When the creature is vanquished at the end, it’s far from the standard moment of triumph. It feels more like a foregone conclusion or the only way this tortured being will ever have any peace. There’s no joy in his death though, just a harrowing sense of loss. The twist at the end involving Harker suggests that this cycle of despair will continue for centuries. Herzog’s vampires are scavengers, searching for a way to belong that will forever remain lost to them. His one foray into the horror genre is beautiful, tragic, unique, and completely unforgettable. There’s only one other vampire film (which I’ll be discussing in the next post) that matches it in terms of theme, atmosphere, and understanding of how lonely it would be to live for eternity.
7. Fright Night
Switching gears a bit to an entirely different take on vampires, let’s talk about Tom Holland’s Fright Night. In short: it’s pure fun. Not every great horror movie needs to be mournful, profound, or dread filled. That’s a misconception about the genre as a whole. When you boil down a lot of premises for horror films, most of them are quite silly. The very idea of an immortal being that feeds on blood and sleeps in a coffin is absolutely preposterous. Having a bit of fun with the concept is a natural way to make it more palatable and entertaining. And no horror film has more fun than Fright Night. It’s also the last horror comedy on the list so it’s important to go out with a bang.
As Creepshow is a love letter to EC Comics, Fright Night is a love letter to the Hammer Films of the seventies, namely the ones starring Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. The film wears this influence on its sleeve by naming Roddy McDowall’s character ‘Peter Vincent’. There’s a lot to love about Fright Night but the number one reason I’m ranking it so high is because of McDowall. He gives an absolutely pitch perfect performance; hilarious, warm, and touching. Peter Vincent’s vanity provides the film’s biggest laughs—his utter bewilderment that the main character would want something other than his autograph is priceless—and his transformation from coward to reluctant hero is surprisingly rousing. When he appears at the ‘dwelling of the monster’ and declares himself ready for battle, we want to cheer. Then we’re laughing ourselves silly as he chickens out mere moments later.
Credit must also be given to Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge, the charming vampire next door. He has the most bland vampire name of all time (which is something the movies points out) but Sarandon has a grand old time with the character. He’s menacing in the right moments and sardonically funny in others. The whole cast is terrific, with Williams Ragsdale making for an appealing lead and Stephen Geoffreys hamming it up as his nerdy friend. The simple premise of a teenage boy discovering a vampire living next door works to the film’s benefit and taps into childhood fears. Who among us didn’t wonder what the people living next door got up to at night?
To compare it to Creepshow once again, this is a film that has no profound statements to make. It’s a broad, exuberant horror comedy with strong characters, excellent effects, a foreboding mood, and a delightful sense of humor. Some movies are masterpieces simply due to their ability to entertain the viewer from beginning to end without doing any heavy lifting. It takes a lot of care and effort to make a film that seems so…well…carefree and effortless. If you watch one horror comedy from this list, make it Fright Night.
6. The Shining
Stephen King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel and that’s totally understandable. The book and film are vastly different and while I won’t say that one is better than the other, I will certainly say that the movie is scarier. King’s objection to making the Jack Torrance character unhinged from the beginning is one of the things that heightens the tension and suspense of the film. We know this guy could snap at any given moment and sit in dreadful anticipation. Nicholson relishes the role and the steady way he becomes more and more unhinged is deeply terrifying.
Kubrick is a visual master and The Shining has so many scenes of stunningly grotesque imagery that I could simply list them all and call it a day. Those two little girls at the end of the hallway with their sing-songy invitation, the horrible woman in Room 247, the blood seeping out of the elevators, the cockeyed angle on Nicholson as he bangs on the freezer door, and, of course, the blowjob bear. These are images that are impossible to forget. Kubrick sears them into our brains and they linger like a nightmare from childhood that we’ve never been able to forget.
The psychological aspect of the film is equally terrifying. It’s possible that nothing supernatural is going on in the Overlook hotel. We could very well be privy to a man losing his grip on reality and a boy caught up in the chaos of that. The final shot suggests otherwise but it’s also there to keep us guessing. Did the hotel haunt the man or did the man haunt the hotel? The answer doesn’t matter but the fact that the question is even asked allows for the film to work on two levels, neither of which is more effective than the other.
As far as horror films go, you don’t get many more meticulously made than The Shining. Kubrick’s infamous insistence on doing take after take may have driven his actors (Shelly Duvall in particular) mad but their frustration translates to the screen and paints a more disturbing portrait of isolation and terror. There’s nary a moment where it feels as if any character is safe. I defy you to watch The Shining and not find one thing in it that gets under your skin.
Stay tuned for Part 12 as I get into the Top Five!